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School of International Service, PhD

Comprehensive Exams

All PhD students are required to successfully complete two comprehensive exams, each of which has a written and oral component.

The first examination is a qualifying examination, and both the written and oral components are normally taken at the end of the first year. The qualifying exam requires students to demonstrate competency in theoretical, epistemological, and methodological literature and issues in international relations, comparative social theory, and comparative and regional studies. These areas are addressed in the core seminars that students normally complete during their first year of residence, although the scope of the examination is not limited to topics covered in the seminars.

The second examination is in a student’s chosen field of specialization. This written and oral field examination evaluates the student’s preparation in a major field of study selected by the student from the graduate concentrations offered by the School of International Service as PhD level fields of study. With the permission of the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and the advice of at least three qualified scholars, the student may also construct a special field (see rules for self-constructed concentrations).

The written and oral field examination is normally given at the end of the second year and requires students to demonstrate competency in the theoretical, epistemological, and methodological literatures from that field. To prepare for this examination, students must successfully complete three courses in their field of concentration, as well as master additional literature, as identified by SIS and associated faculty in that major field.

A student who fails either the qualifying or field examination may apply to the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies for one additional attempt. If approved, the retake of the exam should occur within six months of the date of the first attempt. Students who fail a retake attempt will be dismissed from the doctoral program.


Contact Kasey Neil Petri, the PhD Program Coordinator, at 202-885-6582 or

We encourage prospective candidates to visit the University to meet faculty members and current PhD students. To arrange a visit, contact Graduate Admissions at 202-885-1646 or